Why Bother

a veteran journalist reflects on why we need local media

Tom Giffey, Tom Giffey, illustrated by Sarah Denis


About 10 years ago, as I waited for a concert to begin in the Twin Cities, I struck up a conversation with a fellow fan. I learned he was a medical student from Chicago, and I told him I worked for a mid-sized daily newspaper in Wisconsin.

“What’s the circulation?” he asked.

When I told him, he was clearly unimpressed – not surprising, I suppose, for someone from a huge city like Chicago where media audiences are several degrees of magnitude larger. But what he said next shocked me.

“Why bother?” he asked flippantly. Apparently, Mr. Big City thought there wasn’t much purpose in serving readers if the circulation of your publication was smaller than a rounding error in the Chicago Tribune’s statistics.

I wasn’t quite sure how to respond. I was offended by such a frank challenge to my assumption that what I did for a living had meaning and value. I was so dumbfounded I don’t think I even properly responded to the insult, and the conversation moved on. But that pointed question – “Why bother?” – has continued to nag me. At times, I have felt like George Costanza in the “Seinfeld” episode where he obsesses over an insult thrown his way after he chows down on shrimp during a meeting. (“Hey George, the ocean called; they’re running out of shrimp.”) George finally crafts a comeback (“Well, the Jerk Store called, and they’re running out of you!”) and goes to absurd lengths to deliver it.

Speaking of going to absurd lengths, what’s the point of my long-winded personal anecdote-slash-“Seinfeld” trivia lesson? It’s this: I’m sure Mr. Big City would be even less impressed by my new job here at Volume One. Why bother moving from a daily newspaper, the Leader-Telegram, to a biweekly magazine with an even smaller circulation, a magazine that didn’t even exist when I began my Leader-Telegram career 13 years ago? If a regional daily newspaper like the L-T is small potatoes, a culture-and-community-focused magazine like V1 is baby red potatoes, the kind you eat with the skins on. And here I am, the new old guy in the baby potato bin.

Well, if George Costanza likes shrimp, those of us lucky enough to live in the Chippewa Valley like our potatoes, whether they’re Yukon Gold, baby red or organic heirloom tubers from the farmers market. Local media provide us with sustenance necessary to understand what’s going on in our corner of the world – information about our strengths and weaknesses, our challenges the opportunities.

I’ve been privileged to be part of this media environment for more than a decade. During my L-T career, I did just about everything but deliver the paper: I worked in the Chippewa Falls Bureau, covered politics and business, oversaw the Opinions page and served as night editor. (If you saw a bad typo in recent months, it was probably my fault. Oops!) I’ve occasionally hosted “From the Newsroom,” a media-focused talk show on Community Television, and for two years I was a Monday morning news commentator on WAYY-AM (where I provided an odd juxtaposition with Glenn Beck). I’ve also had the privilege of being president (a job no one else wants, mind you) of the Western Wisconsin Press Club, an informal association of local media folks. I’ve listed these things not to burnish my ego but to let you know why I’ve developed such a strong appreciation for the varied media organizations serving the Chippewa Valley.

Now my career has carried me to Volume One, and I couldn’t be happier. I’ve long been a V1 reader, admirer and even groupie (I played on the kickball team and wrote the very first “Haiku News” column). I’m eager to help share the story of our community on these pages.

And that brings me back to the disparaging comment by Mr. Big City (who, I understand, is available at the Jerk Store). Years later, the comeback I crafted went something like this. As mentioned, he was a medical student. If I talked to him again, I would compare media to medicine: Having access to both is vital to the well-being of a community, no matter what its size. Undoubtedly, it’s more prestigious for a doctor to work at a big-city hospital with hundreds of beds than in a small town where he or she is the only physician. But if you get sick in that small town, it’s no help to know there’s a fancy medical center 100 miles away. You need a doctor here and now. And that doctor is no less important when treating patients in Eau Claire than when treating them in a metropolis. In fact, small-town doctors are probably even more important, because there are fewer of them around.

The same holds true for media: If you want local, relevant information in a big city, you have a profusion of outlets to choose from. In a place like the Chippewa Valley, your menu is smaller, making the individual media outlets all the more important to you – and all the more vital to support. You can read about Congress or Wall Street anywhere, but only a few sources will give you the scoop on the Confluence Project.

So, Mr. Big City, that’s the reason I bother.